How to Write a Descriptive Essay for a College English Class

As a college student, you probably incorporate at least some descriptive prose into most essays. Yet, when asked to write an essay that consists entirely of description, you slam headfirst into that wall called “writer’s block.”

In fact, you probably don’t even know where to begin. You can, however, get past that wall and write effective descriptive essays. To do so, keep certain important information and some helpful guidelines in mind.

Purpose of Descriptive Writing in College

A good description paints a vivid picture, meaning one that conveys an effective impression or feeling about the subject (person, place, action, or object) and makes it come to life in the reader’s imagination.

When describing something, it’s important to remember that you are, on the one hand, presenting certain facts. On the other hand, you are sharing personal opinions, feeling, and impressions regarding the subject.

Communicating the bare facts is called objective description, and communicating personal feelings and impressions is called subjective description. Look at the two examples below, both of which describe the Great Victoria Dessert in Australia.

Example of an Objective Description

In an article written for Encyclopedia of the Earth (2010), Mark McFinley writes the following:

A vast, sparsely populated region covered by dunefields and gibber plains, the Great Victoria Desert receives little rain and experiences extreme temperatures. A highly desert-adapted fauna lives here and the area is known for its lizard diversity. Climate and isolation render pastoralism and agriculture inviable [sic], so the region has suffered few direct effects of European settlement.

Mark McFinley

Example of a Subjective Description

In Desert Places, Robyn Davison writes this description:

Soon after leaving Tempe, I crossed a wide riverbed, slapping my bare feet on hot river pebbles and soft sticks and delighting in the crunch of glittering sand between my toes. Then I saw my first sand-hills. This county had had brushfires through it the previous season, which had been followed by heavy rains, so the colors of the landscape were now brilliant orange, jet black and sickly bright lime Day-glo green. Whoever heard of such a desert? And above all that, everywhere, tracks and tracks I had not noticed before, patches of burnt bushes sticking up like old crow’s feathers from wind-rippled ridges, new bush foods to be searched for and picked. It was delicious new country, but it was tiring.

Barnwell and Dees, 1999, p. 119

It’s important to remember, though, that the most effective descriptions are those that present not only an overall impression of a subject but also at least some credible facts about that subject.

In other words, good descriptive writing skillfully blends objective and subjective description in order to create a dominant impression, which is the overall sense of, or feeling about, the subject that a writer wishes to convey to the reader. Here’s a “mixed” example from the novel Looking for Alibrandi:

When I got off the bus on Thursday afternoon Jacob was waiting for me. He had his sports clothes on and his hair tied back in a little ponytail. When I looked down at my long uniform, black stockings and black shoes, starched blazer and conservative tie, I wondered if we’d ever find a niche together.

Melina Marchetta

Guidelines for Writing an Effective Description

In Steps to Writing Well, Jean Wyrick makes four excellent suggestions regarding how students can write more effective descriptions.

1. Recognize the purpose of the essay

Is the intent to inform, clarify, or persuade? On the other hand, are you being asked to convey a particular mood (gloomy, carefree, sinister, etc) or to communicate an attitude toward the subject (dislike, repulsion, love, adoration, reverence, etc)? By recognizing the purpose, you’ll know whether to concentrate more upon objective or subjective descriptions.

2. Describe clearly, using specific details

You must include sufficient specific details and avoid those that are vague or fuzzy. For example, if you lost your cat, you wouldn’t call the animal shelter and say, “Do you have a gray cat with green eyes?” No, you would paint as vivid a picture as possible, for instance:

Do you have a gray female cat that weighs around 10 pound, with green eyes, four white stockings, a white nose, and wearing a red collar? Oh, and she also has small jagged scar on her right ear from a fight years ago.

3. Choose only appropriate details

In order to convey a dominant impression to the reader, you should include “only those details that communicate a particular mood or feeling to the reader” (Wyrick, 2002, p. 323). For example, if you were writing an essay about a place and your intent was to create a mood of foreboding or mystery, you might write the following:

The house looked forlorn sitting in the middle of the weed-infest lawn. It was weathered gray, with a sagging front porch, and its windows reminded me of the hollow eyes on a death’s head, eyes devoid of not only life but any semblance of compassion or humanity.

4. Make descriptions vivid

Use clear, precise language, and choose words that most effectively convey the impression you hope to make upon the reader. Incorporate sensory details (images that appeal to the five senses) and use figurative language (metaphors, similes, personification, or hyperbole, etc). For instance, you might write:

The lightning walked on jagged legs across the angry, pregnant night sky. (This is an example of personification, which is a technique writers us to give human characteristics to nonhuman things.)

Conclusion: Be Specific and Vivid

In conclusion, writing a descriptive essay isn’t all that difficult, at least not if you determine the purpose, incorporate specific and appropriate details, and make your descriptions vivid.

Just remember that your goal is to paint a picture with words, so choose the colors (words) prudently and then apply them to the canvas (page) with care.